U.S. Vice President Joe Biden met Friday with Lebanese leaders in Beirut, two weeks before parliamentary elections. Lebanon's Western-backed government is locked in a close electoral contest with the pro-Syrian Hezbollah and its allies.
Vice President Biden is the highest-level U.S. official to visit Beirut since 1983.
Show of support
Following a meeting with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, Mr. Biden told a joint news conference the U.S. is not backing any party in Lebanon's June 7 parliamentary election. He said the U.S. strongly supports the Lebanese state, and its institutions.
"I do not come here to back any particular party or any particular person; I come to demonstrate strong United States backing for certain fundamental principles. The principle that the Lebanese people alone, the Lebanese people alone, should choose their leaders, a principle that Lebanese sovereignty cannot, will be and will not be traded away," said Biden.
President Suleiman assured Mr. Biden that the Lebanese state was preparing to "carry out the election in a fair and transparent way."
The Shi'ite group Hezbollah accused Mr. Biden of "meddling in Lebanon's internal affairs."
Not trying to interfere
The United States considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization and has been a strong supporter of the current government headed by Mr. Suleiman.
Vice President Biden said he was not trying to influence the elections, saying it is for the Lebanese people to decide on their government.
Mr. Biden also met with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, an ally of Hezbollah, as well as with Prime Minister Fouad Saniora.
Lebanese political analyst Rami Khouri said the vice president has to tread carefully in talks with Lebanon's leaders.
"It's probably a good thing in principle. In practice it proves to be contentious when the U.S. gets involved in a heavy level or any external player gets involved. If any external actor who comes to Lebanon and is seen to be supporting one side or the other, it tends to muddy up the waters, so it really depends on what he says in private," he said.
A strong Hezbollah showing in the June 7 parliamentary elections could lead the U.S. to rethink its strategy toward Lebanon, as well as U.S. military support for the Lebanese Army, and further complicate Arab-Israeli peace efforts.